We all need feedback. That's why, aside from making key decisions, providing feedback might be a leader's most important job.
But that doesn't mean every leader is great at providing feedback, especially when the observations are constructive or negative.
That's especially true when an employee is struggling. Provide too much feedback, however well-intentioned, and you can easily demotivate and "lose" the employee you hope to turn around.
The mediocre salesperson. The under-performing customer service rep. The struggling front-line supervisor.
Or the NBA player.
When Steve Kerr, the 5-time NBA champion as a player and 3-time champion as a coach, was hired to coach the Golden State Warriors, he had been the general manager of the Phoenix Suns but had never coached.
So he knew he needed to be as prepared as possible, both in terms of Xs and Os and as a leader. (As Pistons coach Chuck Daley once said, "It's hard to be the boss when you look down the bench and see a bunch of guys who are basically Fortune 500 companies.")
In short, he needed to know how to handle what Ethan Sherwood Strauss describes in The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmasking of the Warriors Dynasty as "an obvious aspect of the job they perhaps dwell on most of all: How to communicate with the young millionaires in their midst... "communication (that) is not as intuitive a skill as one might think for these coaches."
(The same is also true for first-time bosses; knowing how to perform certain tasks doesn't mean you know how to communicate with -- and effectively lead -- the people who perform those tasks.)
As Strauss writes, in the NBA coaches spend considerable time trying to figure out how to motivate a demoralized player. How do you help a player out of a slump? How do you help a player regain confidence? How do you help a player realize he needs to work on new skills, or apply his skills in a different way?
In short, how do you turn a player -- an employee -- around?
One of the people Kerr asked was Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells.
As Strauss writes:
"Bill told me that he liked to turn things back over to the player in a very forceful manner," Kerr said.
(He said) "If a player's underperforming I'll bring him into my office and say, 'Apparently I have more confidence in your ability to perform than you do.'
"And it was sort of a way to motivate/shame/anger, however you want to put it, and yet still maintain the upper hand. 'I just told you that I have ore confidence in you than you do. So I have confidence in you.' So it's sort of an abstract way of saying, 'You're not getting the job done and it's your own fault.'"
Parcells' approach accomplished two things: He let the player know Parcells was disappointed in his current performance, and he let him know he believed in him.
Think about the best constructive feedback you've received. You probably walked out cringing... yet also hopeful and even motivated.
Sure, you just found you you needed to improve. No one likes to hear that.
But you also walked out believing you could improve. And knowing your boss believed in you as well.
That's the art of effective feedback: Evaluating performance... while simultaneously providing hope.
Try it. If a salesperson's numbers are down 10 percent, say, "I think I have more confidence in you than you have in yourself. I know you're better than your numbers indicate."
Do that, and you communicate two powerful messages: One, we have high expectations, and two, I know you can reach them.
Do that, and you've not just provided feedback. You've reinforced your relationship with the employee.
Sure, you've made it clear expectations aren't being met.
But you've also made it clear you respect the employee.
And that you care.
Which is the foundation all good feedback is built upon.